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An Interview With Anika Manzoor

by Anika Manzoor
September 10, 2018
This interview with Anika Manzoor, was conducted and condensed by frank news. Anika recieved her MPP from Harvard Kennedy School in 2018 and is the Executive Director of the Youth Activism Project. She co-founded the Youth Activism Project’s very first campaign, School Girls Unite, at the age of 12.

Tatti: Would you start by telling me a bit about your activist history?

Anika: The thing about my activist history is the fact that I didn't really go out seeking activist opportunities. I didn't really know much about it. My family's from Bangladesh. When I first visited Bangladesh I had this revelation of what injustice looks like, because it's a very stratified country in terms of income and poverty. I think I had that kind of burgeoning sense of justice, but I didn't know how, I wasn't thinking about, "Oh, we need to ...". I didn't know that I could even do anything about it.

Four years after that experience, I had been invited to this awareness raising session in my community. My friend invited me and told me about the lack of girls education in developing countries, and how Bangladesh is one of the countries that needed the most action on this issue. That piqued my interest. At the end of it we were invited by the woman who led it to join her in creating a campaign to address the issue. All of it really was the fact that I was invited, rather than I was seeking out that kind of opportunity. I think that's really important. What we focus on with this activism project is trying to invite people, trying to bring people into the fold, because that allows us to reach a lot more people than we would have, and kind of activate people to join this global effort to bring justice in communities.

That's how I got involved with these activism projects. All of us at the meeting that day and Wendy Lesko, the one who had created this space for us, decided to create a campaign called School Girls Unite to address the issue of girls education in developing countries, or the lack thereof. That paved the pathway for the Youth Activism Project as a 501C3 to support other youth activist efforts. Like youth led social change efforts.

I was 12 years old when I got involved, and then stayed involved throughout middle school and high school.

What we did was a combination of philanthropy work and advocacy. We would lobby our congressman and our senators to increase foreign aid for education.

Then we also set up a scholarship program in Mali, Africa, and did various fundraising activities. That was kind of the extent of our activism. I engaged in that throughout middle school and high school. Then in college I still stayed involved with School Girls Unite.

During college I realized that being part of School Girls Unite was such a transformative experience for me. That kind of empowerment through activism is something that I wanted to share with other people who were like me, who understood these global injustices, but didn't really know how to get started. That became my mission, and evolved over the past couple of years until I decided to go back to the Youth Activism Project and work with Wendy to scale our efforts.

Tatti: What do you find most effective for bringing about change through activism? 

Anika: That's an interesting question because I think it's actually a lot easier than what people think. This policy advocacy focus has been our bread and butter for the last 14 years. We're currently working on this guide. Our goal is to really provide accessible tools for young people to know how to engage in these processes. In that guide we pretty much provide concrete steps about where you can look for your local, state, and federal representatives. How do you know who they are? How do you know what kind of issues they're working on? Then how can you enter those spaces? What is the best way to position yourself?

We go through all of that, and it's really not that complicated. You just have to know where to look and what to say. Meeting with decision makers is something, in my experience, that has been incredibly empowering for me. We focus on that in terms of a key aspect.

Just because you can't vote doesn't mean that you're not a constituent with something meaningful to say. This is your right to be able to approach your decision makers. Raising that awareness.

We encourage people to explore a variety of tactics. We focus on policy advocacy, and there's a demand for that as well. Young people want to engage in that kind of activism. Protests are always a great way to rally support and bring about awareness of an issue. We really emphasize arts advocacy. We emphasize other ways to reach out to your decision makers, like doing a postcard writing campaign. We encourage our youth activists to think outside the box when it comes to their advocacy, because they want to be noticed. We're really supportive of the wide gamut of activist strategies.

In terms of what might not be as effective, I think people give a lot of flack to this whole idea of slactivism and internet activism. But I think there's also a purpose for that as well. There's a purpose for a viral hashtag. The internet is a great way to mobilize people for your cause. It's just, you definitely need to build upon social media tools. You can't just rely on that to do activism. That is definitely something that we firmly feel.

Tatti: It's so easy to participate now because of social media, but that also means that those with the largest voices aren't always those who are most informed. Can that be detrimental to a cause?

Anika: That's definitely something to watch out for, but I wouldn't want to say that it totally invalidates the use of the internet and social media as a tool to kind of promote awareness and bring people to the cause. I think it's something that seasoned activists should watch out for and combat. But I think there's so much good that comes out from using social media and the internet that it's definitely not an argument to not use it.

It's fruitless to say that people shouldn't use social media, because it's such an integral part of our lives now that people are always going to get on their soapbox on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter or whatever preferred platform. It's sort of this beast that we can't really ignore. We have to figure out how to guardrail against the negative aspects of activism as it relates to social media.

Tatti: Why is youth is so important to you? Why is that the group you decided to commit to and empower?

Anika: There's a lot of reasons for that. The first thing that comes to my mind is the individual empowerment. We focus on adolescents specifically. Youth is often used as this umbrella term to talk about people from childhood to early adulthood, and even kind of people reaching 30, which I think is pretty firmly adulthood. But somehow that's still youth.

Adolescence is such a tricky time. Not just in the United States, but around the world. There are so many pressures for young people to be a certain way. They're really coming into their selves during this time. Activism for me was this incredible outlet. It was so crucial for my development as a human being, and protected me from a lot of dumb things that affect the lives of young people. Like, "Oh. Am I liked enough?". All these anxieties that young people have. I was focused on something way beyond that through my activism. That kind of helped me, there was a higher purpose for me because I was engaged in this kind of work. I think that was just so powerful.

That's my primary motivating factor. Sharing that with other people who might not have access to it. Then of course the reason why it's so empowering is because you are actually producing change in your community. You're being a leader in your community and in your world. Young people are incredible activists. They bring a lot of assets to the whole activist world. They're idealistic. They're creative. They don't think like adults, so they're not as jaded or as confined by expectation. I think they have a little bit more flexibility to think outside the box, and command attention, because at least at this point it's not common. As an organization we want to change that. We want to make this common.

I think providing something really meaningful to this space is another reason why we focus so much on the adolescent group.

Without their efforts, these processes of change wouldn't happen. That's something to remember as well.

Then finally, these are our future voters. I think the biggest thing that we need to focus on is preparing them to be engaged citizens as they exercise their right to vote as they continue into adulthood. We believe that naturally, if you are exposed to these kinds of values and practices as a young person, it will inevitably continue on into your adulthood. We're living in a time when the rate of voting and engaging in political participation is at a global decline. We need to fix that for this rising generation.